Nutrient-Rich Soil vs. Nutrient-Depleted Soil

posted on

November 6, 2023


nutrient-rich-soil-with-plant.jpg

"How does soil health impact the quality of my food?"

Well, this is a question we’ve been answering for over a decade of raising grass-fed beef here in the pastures of Northeast Indiana.

Today, I’ll attempt to answer that question by running a "science experiment" of sorts that I’ve captured on video below. In the experiment, I compare our farm's soil with soil located just 50 feet from our property!

Before we “dig in” to the soil experiment video, let’s take a quick look at what it means for soils to be healthy, what soil depletion is, and how that impacts food quality.

Let’s get started…

Originally published on August 23rd, 2019, this article was updated and republished on November 6th, 2023.

Characteristics of Healthy Soil

There are variations in what healthy soil looks like, depending on regional soil types and other factors. But there are some consistent characteristics that anyone can use to identify healthy soil – anywhere in the world.

Nutrient-rich soils all have a few measurable characteristics in common: 

  • Good soil aggregate
  • Sufficient root depth
  • Balanced nutrient levels
  • Good water infiltration rates
  • High resilience in the face of unfavorable conditions.

And, the biological diversity above and below the soil is another factor, and one, that typically follows from the other characteristics. Let’s spend a little more time on each of these points above for deeper understanding.

Healthy soil aggregate (what you’ll see with our farm’s soil in the video) is the opposite of hard, compact soil. While soil with good aggregate composition will indeed till easier, the practice of tilling actually leads to more soil compaction, erosion, and the depletion of aggregates.

Soil depth refers to the distance between the surface of the soil and any barriers that stop the downward growth of roots. 

Soil water infiltration rates are the rates at which water moves through the soil, and how that movement occurs. 

Biological diversity is also an essential characteristic of healthy soil. The amount of diversity of plants, insects, and soil microorganisms – leads to soil that can stand up against flooding, droughts, windstorms, and other natural problems. 

To grow their best, plants need a specific balance of nutrients from the soil, which they take up in their roots. The key players are nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Too much of one is just as harmful as not enough – in the same way that taking too much vitamin E can make us humans just as sick as not getting enough vitamin E. 

Plants also need the help of beneficial organisms like insects, bacteria, worms, and fungi. Nutrient-rich soils play host to a massive ecosystem of different organisms. Just check out the life in our soils, specifically the humble earthworm:

healthy-soil-blaine.jpg

This ecosystem helps break down dead plants and organic material, and releases nutrients into the soil, making them available. Certain players in this system also keep pests in check, keeping populations low and allowing the rest of the system to thrive.

The result for humans is nutrient-rich foods, from meat, fruits, and vegetables raised on healthy soil. Most food processed in the US is from depleted soil due to routine practices used in industrial agriculture – over tillage, over-grazing, and mono-cropping. But there’s a growing movement toward regenerative farming, which restores soil health and nutrient content in your food.

Sound good? If so, you can visit the Seven Sons Farm Store in Roanoke, IN, or browse our online store to get your hands on the high-quality food from our regenerative practices.

Can You Restore Nutrient-Depleted Soil?

The good news is that it’s possible to restore nutrient-depleted soil, and farms like ours are leading the way! The less exciting news is that it takes work and planning, and most players in the food chain aren’t willing to invest the time. 

Soil regeneration is the process of building up soils that have been depleted, generally through intensive agricultural efforts. We began our long-running soil regeneration process on the Seven Sons Farm 20+ years ago, and we continue to see new and improved results every season. 

Regenerating the soil requires astute observation and implementing practices that allow the land to heal itself year after year. What does that mean to us? What are we doing??

Our friend Gabe Brown identifies these 5 primary factors for restoring nutrient-depleted soil:

  1. Minimize soil disturbance: Tilling, whether from hoes, rakes, shovels, or large-scale equipment, causes carbon to be released into the atmosphere. At Seven Sons, after several years of leaving our soil undisturbed, organic matter has tripled from 2% to 6%. Keep in mind that each 1% increase in organic matter means an acre of land retains an additional 20,000 gallons of water.
  2. Protect the soil: Keeping the soil covered for as many days of the year will provide a protective armor of sorts. It helps protect against wind and water erosion and increases organic matter in the soil by allowing macro- and micro-organisms to thrive.
  3. Diversify your plants: Plant diversity helps ensure there will always be something green and growing on the land more days out of the year. Plant diversity also protects forages from the negative impacts of insects, thus reducing the need for pesticides.
  4. Utilize Cover crops for more living roots more months of the year: Planted during the off-season, cover crops help protect and maintain soil health. Common cover crops are wheat, barley, and clover. You can even harvest some of your cover crops at the end of the season. The number one tool for regenerating your land is having green growing roots in the ground year-round. That is the process of regeneration – there’s no regeneration if there aren’t any roots growing!
  5. Embrace the positive impact of farm animals: Chickens, cows, and pigs play a significant role in soil regeneration. Their movements and interactions with the land provide beneficial disturbance and fertilization as the animals migrate and graze forages and cover crops.
pasture-raised-cows2.jpeg

Over time, the soil ecosystem can sustain itself – as long as you don’t do anything to throw the balance off again.

The specific process for soil regeneration depends on several factors, including whether or not you include livestock in the process. At Seven Sons, we’ve found that pasture-raised and grass-fed livestock like cattle, sheep, bison, chickens, and pigs increase the nutrient cycling of the soil ecosystem.

Letting animals interact with pastures naturally helps keep pests in check, provides a delicate amount of beneficial disturbance, and encourages the growth of a diverse range of plants.

Ok, that’s enough of reading the science behind what we do. Watch as my brother Blake runs his experiment showing how each type of soil handles 1 inch of “rain”:

The result of this experiment absolutely matters for you, your food, and OUR environment.

What Is Nutrient-Rich Soil?

Nutrient-rich soil has some key characteristics, but the big picture is that all the ingredients and conditions are present to allow the plants growing in them to thrive.

As you can see in the experiment from the video, healthy soils retain water effectively. Due to the loose, fluffy texture of the soil aggregate, water travels downward through the layers of the soil more than it does over the surface. This provides better access to the roots of the plants and keeps the entire soil ecosystem hydrated and healthy.

Soils rich in nutrients hold onto water and funnel it downwards, deeper into the earth, instead of letting it run off into streams, lakes, and rivers. Healthy soil channels carbon deeper into the soil ecosystem, making nutrients available to the various organisms. 

Regenerative grazing practices increase the speed of soil regeneration, stimulating the growth of deeper roots and the cycling of nutrients throughout the soil ecology. Properly conducted, regenerative grazing introduces organic material into the soil matrix and encourages plant and animal diversity.

What Is Nutrient-Depleted Soil?

As the video also makes clear, nutrient-depleted soil is typically dense, crumbly, and dry. It lacks soil aggregate to hold onto water, which leads to runoff and discourages diversity in the organisms that live in and on the soil.

The results of soil depletion go far beyond the issue of agricultural runoff into rivers, lakes, and streams. The most depleted soils won’t support life, and that’s when plants require synthetic fertilizers to give plants the needed boost for the season, but this results in low nutrient-dense foods and furthers the degradation of soil life.

nutrient-depleted-soil.jpg

The result of widespread nutrient depletion in soils is staggering. Studies indicate that the nutritional quality of the fruits and vegetables we buy has steadily decreased over the past several decades.

Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, along with genetic engineering, mean that yields continue to go up. However, poor soils mean that each fruit or vegetable you buy at the supermarket has less and less nutritional value, with some studies showing decreases of up to 50% of the content of some nutrients. 

What Causes Soil to Deplete?

To grow, plants need to use the nutrients in the soil. This can lead to depletion if the soil is overused and the biological organisms within the soil are not healthy.

A regenerative process occurs as the biological organisms – microorganisms – replenish nutrients in the soil. Harmful practices like tillage and using synthetic chemical fertilizers deplete the microorganisms in the soil, so it won’t have any way to regenerate the nutrients naturally. You lose the biological process!

And that requires using more harmful synthetic chemicals that continue to degrade and deplete soil nutrients.

It’s a biological process.

Biological diversity is the key to soil health and avoiding nutrient depletion. There’s an unlimited amount of nutrients in the soil, but most aren’t available to the plants.

It’s the microorganisms in the soil that break down those nutrients and feed the plant roots. Take the earthworm, for example. It helps replenish soil nutrients. 

Just 10 earthworms within a cubic foot can produce 160,000 pounds of castings per acre each year. Why is that important? Because earthworm castings are 5 to 10 times higher in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium than most soil aggregates.

But dry, sterile, nutrient-depleted soil is unlikely to have one earthworm, let alone 10. The loss of nutrients is significant.

earthworm-eggs.jpg

There is hope, though. Earthworm eggs (like those pictured above) can lay dormant in the soil for decades – only hatching when the conditions are right. This means we can revive our soil and replenish it, if we take the right steps.

What Nutrients Are Depleted in Soil?

The most obvious nutrients – phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, and calcium – are not necessarily the most important. They’re the ones that will show up on soil tests and be identifiable early on. Depletion of these nutrients is also an indicator of whether or not you lack soil life – showing a need to build soil life so that it can replace and rebuild these nutrients in the soil. 

For example, phosphorous is vital to plant metabolism, helping plants convert energy into growth. Plants need nitrogen to make chlorophyll, and inadequate nitrogen means that the plant can’t produce the sugars it needs to live. 

Micronutrients like copper and zinc are also indicators of nutrient depletion. These are not as obvious because the symptoms of low micronutrients would be plant disease and pests, and those symptoms can be temporarily remedied with insecticides and other chemicals that mask those problems. As a result, these micronutrients never get replaced, and any food grown ends up devoid of them.  

Intensive agriculture strips these nutrients and more from the soil, resulting in weaker plants steadily losing their nutritional value. 

Our Commitment to Improving Soil Quality

At Seven Sons Farms, we've devoted over 25 years to creating the healthy soil and grasses that our animals graze and feed on throughout the year.

soil-test-demonstration.jpg

It's a privilege that a small percentage of livestock ever enjoy, but we're grateful we can bring this opportunity to them and our customers. You can tour the Seven Sons farm online or in person to see the results like Blake is showing in the picture above.

It truly is our vocation.

I'd love to hear what you learned from this short video and reading this article. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

More from the blog

Nutritional and Health Benefits of Eating Beef Liver

Looking for a low-cost, highly nutritious centerpiece for your next meal? Then you need to try beef liver.  This often-overlooked organ meat is a nutritional powerhouse. It’s lean yet rich in protein, with high levels of vitamin A, B12, and iron. Plus, with its tender texture and creamy flavor, it’s as delicious as it is nutritious. Not only is beef liver super tasty and easy to cook, but it’s also a sustainable choice. When you buy beef liver and other ethically sourced organ meats, you help to ensure no part of the animal goes to waste.  Still a little uncertain? Let’s look at all the benefits of beef liver in more detail!  Nutritional Values of Beef Liver Did you know beef liver is the most nutrient-dense meat you can eat?  US Department of Agriculture data shows that a serving (113g) contains just 150 calories. Each bite is packed with vitamin A, zinc, iron, and more. But to get the full health benefits of beef liver, you’ll need to opt for grass-fed and grass-finished. GMO grains, antibiotics, and steroids compromise the cow’s liver quality and nutritional value. Studies show that grass-fed liver contains up to four times more nutrients than grain-fed. So, here’s the nutritional profile you can expect from grass-fed beef liver: High in Protein A serving of beef liver provides an impressive 23 grams of protein, making it an excellent source of essential amino acids.  Your body needs amino acids to build and repair muscle, maintain brain function, and balance blood sugar levels.  Plus, from a weight management perspective, beef liver helps keep you fuller for longer. So, you’re less likely to reach for an unhealthy snack after your meal. Rich in Vitamins Beef liver is abundant in plenty of essential vitamins your body needs to function optimally:  Vitamin A: One serving of beef liver has 380% of your body’s daily vitamin A needs. This vitamin is essential for healthy vision, glowing skin, and fighting free radicals.  B-complex vitamins: Beef liver contains almost half your RDA of several B vitamins. These are essential for nervous system health, mood regulation, and metabolic function. Packed with Minerals Beef liver is an excellent source of fatigue-fighting iron. A serving contains 30% of your daily intake.  But that’s not all. This tasty, tender meat also provides 50% of your daily selenium, 40% of your zinc, and 31% of your phosphorus requirements.  These vital minerals have powerful antioxidant properties. They play crucial roles in thyroid gland function, sleep regulation, and DNA production. Contains Coenzyme Q10 Beef liver is an excellent source of the antioxidant Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), offering 3 mg per 100g. CoQ10 protects cells from damage and maintains a healthy metabolism. Health Benefits of Eating Beef Liver Now that we’ve explored beef liver’s impressive nutritional profile, let’s delve into the benefits of incorporating it into your diet. Supports Immune Function Your ‘immunity’ is your body’s ability to fight off infections and prevent harmful cell changes. Beef liver contains plenty of vitamins and minerals to boost immune function.  Firstly, its A and B vitamins help your body maintain healthy, normal immune cells.  Plus, the iron and copper in beef liver encourage antibody production. This helps your body fight off toxic antigens that could make you sick.  Boosts Energy Levels A common cause of persistent fatigue is iron deficiency anemia. People get this when they don't have enough iron in their diet. Iron is vital for transporting oxygen to the muscles and brain. It plays a crucial role in both mental agility and physical performance. Low iron levels can even manifest as a lack of focus and increased irritability. Luckily, beef liver offers a delicious solution to this problem. It provides a healthy dose of iron to boost your energy levels. Plus, thanks to its vitamin and mineral content, beef liver also helps stabilize energy levels and promote restful sleep. Promotes Healthy Vision You’ve likely heard that munching on carrots can do wonders for your eyesight. That's because this vegetable contains plenty of vitamin A and retinol.  Vitamin A maintains optimal eye health in several ways. It fends off macular degeneration, tackles dry eyes, and bolsters sight in dimly lit environments. But you don't need to eat lots of carrots to get a healthy dose of vitamin A. Beef liver has three times the amount per 100 grams. Enhances Brain Health Beef liver is what's known as "brain food." This is because it supports healthy brain functioning.  In fact, Chicago Medical School found that people who regularly eat beef liver have better memory and a lower risk of Alzheimer's than others.  The omega-3 fatty acids in beef liver can also protect your brain as you age. Qingdao University found these nutrients directly protect against cognitive decline.  Improves Muscle Mass and Repair Adequate protein intake is crucial for sustaining and developing muscle mass. When you consume protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids. These amino acids are then used for tissue repair, hormone regulation, and energy synthesis. However, not all foods are complete proteins. This means they lack some of the nine essential amino acids your body needs.  Enter beef liver—a delicious, complete protein source. With over 20g of protein per serving, it’s a great choice for post-workout recovery or boosting daily protein intake. Supports Skin Health Another benefit of beef liver is that it can make you glow from the inside out. Firstly, it's rich in retinol. This vitamin promotes healthy cell turnover, giving you a fresh and clear complexion. Beef liver also contains youth-boosting peptides like glutathione and collagen. These help to maintain skin elasticity and firmness. The B vitamins in beef liver also support skin health. Vitamin B2, for example, repairs damaged skin cells and stimulates new growth. Vitamin B3, or niacin, keeps skin hydrated and inflammation at bay. Aids in Detoxification Besides being incredibly tasty, eating beef liver is also good for your liver. This is because it contains two important compounds:  Glutathione helps with detoxification, neutralizing harmful toxins that can damage the liver.  Choline prevents fat buildup in the liver, reducing the risk of fatty liver disease and promoting overall liver health. Precautions  While beef liver is healthy to eat, it’s essential to enjoy it as part of a balanced and diverse diet. That's because of its high vitamin A content.  Vitamin A is fat-soluble, meaning it's stored in the body. Consuming too much of it can be harmful. So, it's best to eat beef liver once a week for most people.  Certain demographics will need to be more cautious:  Pregnant women: Too much vitamin A has been linked to birth defects. It’s best that pregnant women avoid beef liver during pregnancy.  Gout sufferers: All organ meats are naturally high in purines. While eating purines is fine for most, people with gout should avoid high-purine foods. Try Our Delicious Grass-Fed Beef Liver Today! Now that you're familiar with beef liver's nutritious benefits, it's time to try it for yourself! Order Seven Sons’ grass-fed beef liver today and unlock the health benefits of this meat. 

Spring Pasture Update with Pictures

Spring is undoubtedly one of the busier seasons on the farm. Not only is there so much new life on the farm (as I'll detail below), but we are also cleaning up from winter and embarking on a number of new projects for the 2024 grass-growing season. Again, while we're known for producing and selling clean, delicious and nutrient-dense meats for home delivery, when you're regenerative-focused farmers like my brothers and I, you first identify as a grass farmer. We are not only responsible for raising your animals with the utmost care and respect, but also building integrity and life into the soil and environment where they live and prosper.

Best Breed of Chicken for Ethical Pastured Meat

When it comes to cooking, few things rival the satisfaction of a perfectly cooked, flavorful chicken dish. However, the secret to culinary success isn’t just in the recipe. It’s in the quality of the chicken itself.  Meat quality and affordability have a lot to do with the chicken breed – and, more crucially – how it was raised.  In this article, I will unpack some of the unknowns about chicken breeds, and how consumer expectations continue to shape the future of poultry.  Our ethical pastured chicken is different than what you’ll find at most supermarkets.  Here’s our approach, starting with selecting the most effective chicken breed for meat. Why Breed Matters for Quality, Flavor & Affordability You’ve probably never thought of chicken breeds in the way you would cattle breeds. While you may have heard of breeds like Wagyu and Angus when it comes to steak, people typically purchase chicken based on whether it’s free-range or pasture-raised.  But that’s not the only thing that matters. The breed of chicken plays a significant role in meat quality and taste.  While you might think ‘heritage’ chicken is the way to go, unfortunately, that’s far from the case due to several factors outside of our farm’s control. Historically chicken breeds were always used for the dual purpose of producing both eggs and meat. However, within the past 100 years, chickens have been bred for the specific purposes of either meat or eggs, not both. This has led to hyper-efficient breeds that have set high standards for the texture, tenderness, and affordability of chicken protein. Heritage birds like the Ancona and Sussex are small, and their flavor profile is unusual. Because of this, heritage breeds can end up with a gamey, woody taste and tough texture–nothing like the chicken you’re used to. Also, because heritage breeds are small and grow slowly, you don’t get a lot of meat for your money - making these breeds out of reach for the budgets of 99% of consumers. The optimum chicken breed–and the one we exclusively raise at Seven Sons and in our farm partner network–is the Cornish Cross Broiler. Originating in England in the 1820s, these hybrid birds meet consumers’ quality and affordability expectations while still allowing us to invest extra care in raising the birds ethically on pasture as the seasons allow. From their impressive double breasts to their ideal muscle-to-fat ratio, Cornish Cross chickens consistently deliver on taste and tenderness. This makes them the gold standard for those seeking delicious, protein-rich meat that's both hearty and flavorful.  Sustainable Practices and Their Impact on Meat Quality However, it’s not just the breed of chicken that matters. How they’re raised plays a crucial role in the quality of the meat as well.  Ethically raised chickens with access to pastures can have better nutritional value and offer a more diverse taste and texture profile.  The reasons for this are three-fold:  Space to roam: Chickens raised in a way that allows them to roam free and express their natural behaviors develop better muscle than poultry raised in tight confinement. Better nutrition: Pasture-raised chickens are more nutritious because they eat a diverse, nutrient-dense diet through foraging on healthy farmland and non-GMO grain. Happy lives: Stress impacts the quality and taste of the meat. That’s why buying ethically sourced meat is so important – not just for the welfare of the animal, but the nutritional value, too.  Meet our Chicken Breeds: The Stars at Seven Sons As we’ve mentioned, the Cornish Cross Broiler is our choice of breed. With its history and lineage, this chicken breed combines the qualities of Cornish Chickens with the larger sizes seen in breeds like the White Rock. The result is a large, lean bird that produces succulent, tender meat. Here’s an overview of the Key characteristics of the Cornish Cross: Appearance: These majestic birds have broad chests and short legs. They also have a muscular build with a large breast area. Males typically weigh between 6-8 pounds, while females weigh between 4-6 pounds. Weather Tolerance: Our Cornish Cross chickens require attentive care as seasons change. During winter, providing ample shelter ensures their warmth and protection. In the heat of summer, they seek shade, ventilation, and cool water to beat the heat. Temperament: These docile, friendly animals rely on breeders for protection against predators like raccoons, foxes, and birds of prey. With secure mobile coops during summer production and access to lush pastures year around (including as weather permits in winter), we prioritize their safety while nurturing their natural behaviors. Raising Practices: From Hatchling to Harvest At Seven Sons, every decision we make, from the poultry breeds we raise to our farming practices, is rooted in our dedication to quality, sustainability, and animal welfare. Choosing Cornish Cross hens from Seven Sons, raised with a focus on regenerative farming practices, means you’re aligning with a farm deeply committed to the nutrients of our food and the ethical treatment of animals. Caring for Our Animals We don’t just raise our chickens for their meat. We do all we can to take the best care of them.  During the balmy summer months, they enjoy the freedom to roam in spacious mobile coops, where they can peck and scratch in fresh, sun-kissed pastures. Each day brings a new rotation to ensure they have access to the best forage and plenty of space to thrive, while protecting the natural ecosystem. When the winter chill descends, we provide our chickens with plenty of warmth and shelter in cozy barns with pasture access as weather permits, ensuring their well-being when the temperature drops. The indoor space is kept warm, and the birds are given 10-20% more space beyond what organic standards require. The winter barns also have windows that let in plenty of natural light, allowing our birds to wake up with the natural sunrise. Caring for Our Land Our commitment to ethical farming doesn't end there. We also embrace regenerative grazing practices that nurture our chickens and the land they roam on. One of the overlooked elements of CAFOs is their impact on the environment. Not only are factory-farmed chickens' lives incredibly stressful, but they don’t get to play their natural role in boosting environmental biodiversity.  Our chickens, on the other hand, play a crucial part in the ecosystem of our sustainable farm, helping to:  Enhance Soil Health: Through natural foraging and scratching, our chickens contribute to soil health, enriching it with organic matter and fostering vital microbial activity. Provide Natural Fertilizer: The nutrient-rich manure produced by our chickens serves as a natural fertilizer, promoting robust plant growth and reducing reliance on synthetic alternatives. Pest Control: Harnessing our chickens' instincts, we utilize them as a pest control mechanism, feasting on insects, larvae, and weed seeds, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides. Caring for Our Customers  At Seven Sons and our partner farms, you're not just making a transaction when you choose to buy from us. You're entering into a relationship built on trust and mutual respect for your well-being. For us, this means holding ourselves to the highest standards when it comes to the meat we produce. We firmly believe that food should never pose a risk to your health. It should be a source of nourishment and vitality. That's why we’re deeply committed to providing quality, natural nutrition to our animals: our chickens are raised on a diet free from GMOs, antibiotics, drugs, and hormones. We believe in the power of natural, wholesome nutrition to support a healthy lifestyle. By choosing our products, you can rest assured that you're making a choice that prioritizes your health and the health of your loved ones. Preparing Chicken: Tips and Tricks Sure, you may have cooked with chicken breasts or thighs–maybe even a whole chicken–but we sell plenty of other incredibly tasty and nutritious cuts of chicken. From drumsticks to wings, backs to giblets, each cut offers its own unique flavor profile and cooking experience. Our ethically raised Cornish Cross Broilers are nutritious and easy to cook. This generously sized bird is protein-packed and nutrient-dense, making for a delicious meal whether grilled, baked, barbecued, or slow-cooked.  How you prepare your chicken will depend on the cooking method and cut you’ve chosen–and there are plenty to choose from! Order Your Ethical Pasture-Raised Chicken Today!  Ready to taste the difference? Order your ethically pasture-raised chicken now and taste the quality and flavor that comes from ethical breeding and sustainable practices.